The Doobie Brothers basically became two different bands – the one with and the one without Michael McDonald.
The first was sort of a post-Woodstock group of long-haired jam freaks that played a mix of Grateful Dead-inspired roots music, twangy country rock, biker boogie and old-fashioned three-chord guitar rock. The second took over in 1976, after the Steely Dan vet McDonald joined. His smart pop hooks and warm, soulful voice helped soften the Doobie Brothers' harder edges and reputation.
They'd already racked up a number of Top 40 singles, including a No. 1, before he joined – and they just kept getting bigger. Our list of the Top 10 Doobie Brothers Songs digs into both eras.
'It Keeps You Runnin''From: 'Takin' It to the Streets' (1976)
After 1975's Top 5 Stampede album, the Doobie Brothers were near their breaking point. Rigorous touring and recording schedules had worn down the band, particularly frontman Tom Johnston. So Michael McDonald, who had done time with Steely Dan, was called in. His contributions quickly revitalized them. The California-funky "It Keeps You Runnin'" was his second Top 40 hit for the Doobie Brothers.
'Dependin' on You'From: 'Minute by Minute' (1978)
After McDonald's second album with the group, 1977's somewhat disappointing Livin' on the Fault Line, the Doobie Brothers returned a year later with the biggest record of their career. McDonald is featured on some of the LP's best cuts (see Nos. 5 and 1 on our list of the Top 10 Doobie Brothers Songs), but not all of them. This Top 30 single, co-written by McDonald, features founding member Patrick Simmons on vocals.
'Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)'From: 'Stampede' (1975)
This cover of a '60s R&B Motown hit by Kim Weston was the follow-up to "Black Water," the group's first No. 1 (see No. 6 on our list of the Top 10 Doobie Brothers Songs). McDonald wouldn't join until the following year, but the band does a great job injecting some soul into things.
'Minute by Minute'From: 'Minute by Minute' (1978)
The Doobie Brothers followed up their No. 1 smash "What a Fool Believes" with the title track to their only chart-topping album. Like its predecessor, "Minute by Minute" is laid-back blue-eyed soul at its best. In addition to delivering one of his finest vocals, McDonald plays the bouncing organ that drives the song.
'Takin' It to the Streets'From: 'Takin' It to the Streets' (1976)
Michael McDonald's first single with the Doobies signaled a change within the group. Even though founding member Tom Johnston would stick around for part of the next album's sessions, McDonald took the first step toward becoming the band's frontman on "Takin' It to the Streets." His soulful rasp on this Top 20 hit helped pivot the group toward pop and R&B audiences.
'China Grove'From: 'The Captain and Me' (1973)
The group's third album is stuffed with great guitar riffs (see No. 4 on our list of the Top 10 Doobie Brothers Songs). "China Grove," an air-guitar classic, is the greatest. It's also the group's toughest-sounding song, a riff-powered bar rocker complete with crunchy guitars, rolling piano and singalong chorus. The highlight of the Johnston era.
'Listen to the Music'From: 'Toulouse Street' (1972)
The Doobie Brothers' first Top 40 hit – which just missed the Top 10, stopping at No. 11 – pegged the band as amiable '70s hippies with no leftover '60s baggage. The soft, shuffling rhythm is California smooth, with Johnston's unhurried vocals pushing along the song's celebratory theme at a casual, steady pace. They'd get a little tougher on their next album.
'Black Water'From: 'What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits' (1974)
With an a cappella breakdown, a viola solo and a bunch of acoustic instruments, "Black Water" was an unlikely pop hit in 1974. Even more remarkable was that it reached No. 1. Guitarist Simmons (also featured on "Dependin' on You," No. 9 on our list of the Top 10 Doobie Brothers Songs) sings lead and sounds like he's having the chillest day of his life.
'Long Train Runnin''From: 'The Captain and Me' (1973)
One of the band's most popular songs, featuring one of its greatest guitar riffs, was their first to hit the Top 10. Like many early pre-McDonald songs, "Long Train Runnin'" stemmed from and sounds like an extension of a casual jam session among members. It eventually took shape as one of their most durable cuts.
'What a Fool Believes'From: 'Minute by Minute' (1978)
After "What a Fool Believes" became a No. 1 smash and snatched a couple of well-deserved Grammys, the Top 40 landscape sounded a bit different. Suddenly, McDonald's soulful vocals and soft and warm keyboard riffs (never better than they are here), started showing up in imitation on other songs (as well as in TV commercials) and cemented his reputation as one of the era's finest pop craftsmen.